Original “Bergen Noir” fiction

A novel emerges from the trip of a lifetime

Bergen

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
When protagonist Charlotte “Charlie” Maxwell arrived at Bergen’s Flesland Airport, her mind was full of questions: What had happened there, and what would she find? Follow her footsteps though the city as her story unfolds, and you’ll be left with a question in your own mind: What is going to happen next?

COURTNEY HARDIN
Purdue University Northwest

Courtney Hardin traveled to Norway with a small group of students from Purdue University Northwest in the winter of 2019 as a faculty member. She had the opportunity to explore Bergen and meet and interview some of Norway’s biggest crime fiction writers, including Gunnar Staalesen, Trude Teige, Alex Dahl, and Karin Fossum. Through these amazing experiences in Norway, Courtney has chosen to experiment with and explore one of her greatest passions: writing. Below is the first chapter of her novel in progress. Let yourself be drawn into the mysterious world of the “Bergen Noir”—you’ll surely be left in serious suspense.

Chapter One: Bergen

Charlotte “Charlie” Maxwell exhaled deeply while making her way through the Bergen Airport. She walked along the outstretched corridors, oblivious to the sights and sounds around her. Her heart carried the burden of a weight far heavier than that of the carry-on luggage that trudged reluctantly behind her, one wheel stubbornly refusing to cooperate in unison with its counterparts.

The entire flight from Chicago to Detroit, then Amsterdam to Bergen remained a heavy veil shrouding her memories like the hazy fog that often curls over Bergen’s harbor during its long winter evenings. She vaguely recalled the small droplets of rain spattering her hair and the chilled wind slapping her face as she boarded the City Hopper from Amsterdam to Bergen. Her mind pieced together images of slippery steel stairs with spiky medal grips accompanied by the clanging sounds of footsteps clamoring to reach the top of the small aircraft. A vessel that took passengers somewhere else, somewhere safe: Bergen.

A digital clock mounted on one of the corridor walls read 10:43 in bold red lines. Despite the late morning hour, the sun remained hidden behind the mountains. Charlie arrived in Bergen during its darkest days, the last days leading up to Christmas, but that made no difference to her. She made her way past the crowd when her eye caught sight of an image outside the airport window. Embedded in the beautiful mountain range in proud, yellow letters stood a single, seemingly unassuming question: “BERGEN?” Yes, Charlie had questions for Bergen.

The blissful aroma of fish and chips invaded her senses, further awakening her to her surroundings.  Charlie immediately changed course, heading to a large, circular structure, standing as a separate unit. The restaurant, Fiskeriet, provided a beacon in the dark. Charlie’s stomach groaned pleadingly, as trays loaded with salted cod, battered potatoes, and fish stew danced past her like playful ballerinas gliding carelessly through the air. But Charlie had no interest in food.

Shuffling beyond the crowd, she finally arrived before a handsome, 20ish-looking young man standing behind the bar. Her eyes shifted to the bottle of aquavit, and he immediately turned to grab it.

“No!” She said, much louder than intended. “I mean, I’m sorry. Could I just get a double-shot of Gjoleid and a glass of water? I’ve had bad experiences with aquavit in the past, and I . . .” She let the sentence trail off. Nervous rambling. This handsome, blond boy behind the bar doesn’t care about your bad experience with aquavit seven years ago.

“Of course,” he said, mischief unabashedly shining in his clear, blue eyes. “Anything else?” Charlie marveled, as she always did, at the way Norwegians could shift flawlessly from their native language to English, as if they had never known anything else.

Averting her eyes, Charlie muttered “no” and began sifting through her worn, brown, leather knapsack slung across her shoulder. She reached for her wallet, and placed 300 kroner on the bar. Returning with the drinks, he nodded politely and said, “Enjoy your time in Norway.” Then, he quickly moved on to assist other customers.

Charlie hastily threw down the drink and took two big gulps of water. Exiting the bar, she noticed a small convenience shop. Stopping in front of the store, she examined the latest headline from the Norway Record. She read the words slowly to herself, and she felt the newly consumed whisky threaten to rise from her stomach and revolt. She walked into the store, purchased a copy of the paper, and swiftly shoved it inside her knapsack.

Charlie boarded a bus from the airport to Strandkaien. With her head pressed against the cold window, she reached for the knapsack. Hands trembling, she removed the newspaper and unfolded it across her lap. The headline proclaimed “Police Continue to Investigate Gruesome Murders Connected to Local Youth Hostels in Bergen and Oslo.” She leaned back into the cushioned chair and dared to close her eyes for a few seconds. Images flashed quickly. Her eyes shot open, and she pushed horrifying thoughts aside. She inhaled deeply and pinched the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger. Then, she slowly released her breath. Don’t fall apart now.

Events from the previous weeks seized her mind and threatened to drown her the way an unrelenting alligator clutches its prey before dragging it to murky depths below. She focused on the events that led her here. Two weeks earlier Charlie’s sister, Cathleen, called to say she feared for her 19-year-old son, Brant. Brant and a group of friends were traveling across Europe. His last communication came from Bergen over a week earlier.

Charlie had spent a year of graduate studies attending the University of Bergen, where she worked intensely to uncover unsolved crimes in Europe. This led to a career as a research journalist specializing in grisly crimes throughout the United States and Europe. She had several contacts in Bergen, including recently retired Inspector Gunnar Bringeland. Bringeland connected her with Inspector Frederick Dunbar of Bergen Police Headquarters.

“He’s a bit rough. Not exactly the warm and fuzzy type, but he will give you what information he has,” Bringeland assured her. He promised to assist her himself upon his return from holiday in London.

Charlie contacted Dunbar, and he guaranteed her that the hostels in Bergen were held in high esteem. He calmly stated, “Ms. Maxwell, I can assure you that if your nephew is or has been a guest at one of our hostels in Bergen, he is perfectly safe. You say it has only been a week and a half since his last communication? And at that time he indicated he was leaving the Bergen Hostel Montana and relocating to Oslo? It really isn’t a great amount of time for a 19-year-old boy to go without communicating, don’t you think? We will keep our eyes open and let you know if anything arises.” Click.

Another week went by without communication from Brant. Charlie picked up the phone a hundred times, hoping to receive something, anything, when the phone began vibrating in her hand. Bergen Police Headquarters. Palms sweating, she set the phone on the kitchen counter and turned it to speaker. With slippery hands braced against the counter top, she hanged her head and quietly whispered, “Hello.”

“Ms. Maxwell, are you there?” A voice on the other end persisted. “Ms. Maxwell?”

“Yes,” she replied, forcing herself to speak louder, “this is Charlie Maxwell.”

Everything became a blur. Dunbar had been contacted by the Olso police. A young man was found dead in a designated construction area outside of Norway’s national soccer stadium, Ullevaal Stadion. He matched Brant’s description. The boy’s face was severely beaten, and multiple lacerations were found across his back and inner thighs. His left tibia had been completely shattered, and his Achilles tendon had been partially severed.

In a detached, cool tone, Inspector Dunbar went on, “Ms. Maxwell, his face has been beaten so severely, likely with some type of blunt object, so I doubt he would be recognizable through photos. Do you know of any identifiable marks that he might have? A birthmark, tattoos? Anything that could help us to determine if this is your nephew?”

“I’ll be on the next flight.”

“Ms. Maxwell, I am afraid that is not necessary. We can’t be even remotely sure that this is your nephew.”

“I’ll be on the next flight.”

“Again, that is not. . .”

Charlie didn’t tell anyone the truth about her destination. She told the family that she had been given an assignment that would take her out of the country. This was not unusual. She promised that she would do her best to be home by Christmas, and yes, she was still checking with her contacts in Norway to see if there was news about Brant.

Now, she sat aboard the bus, as it tunneled through the mountains and past nestled cottages buried within the mountain walls. Peaceful fjords with boats lounging lazily atop the calm waters were soon replaced by modernized buildings and busy storefronts. As the bus approached the Bergen City Centre, the Ferris wheel of the Julemarked spun slowly and deliberately like a clock that would neither be slowed nor sped by any outside force. It had its own agenda.

Once the bus reached Strandkaien, Charlie quickly stuffed the paper back into the knapsack, gathered her belongings, and headed past the harbor toward Augustin Hotel. She’d scheduled a meeting with Investigator Frederick Dunbar for 9 a.m. the following morning. But today, the sun had finally awakened from its sleep, and Charlie had a stop to make before it bade its farewell again. She checked into the hotel, dropped her carry-on, and headed back to the hotel lobby. She asked the attendant to call a taxi, and within minutes it arrived at the front door. The driver opened the back passenger side door and looked at her inquisitively.

“Møllendal Cemetery.” She whispered it so softly that he again looked at her questioningly.

“Møllendal Cemetery.” She said more forcefully, and he nodded affirmatively.

Nearly 10 minutes later, they arrived. She thanked the driver, paid him, and made her way to the spot she had visited so often as a student in Bergen. After a lengthy walk, she settled down near an unceremonious patch of dirt. The unmarked grave lay covered with leaves and bristles. A few candles and a small bouquet of freshly picked flowers surrounded its edges.  She buried her hand in the cold, damp earth and stared across the cemetery. The tears she had been fighting finally freed themselves. As they trickled down her face she looked first to Mount Fløyen in the distance, then back toward the grave of the unknown woman buried beside her.

“What happened to you?” she whispered gently. “Will we ever know?”

She released the dirt and watched it slide silently through her fingers and return to the grave of the Isdal Woman. She once came here to lend comfort to the lonely, unidentified woman. She was idealistic then. Now, the grave served as a reminder: the world has teeth. Sharp, terrifying teeth that, every so often, demand to take a bite in the most horrific way. In this often cruel world, her 19-year-old nephew had gone missing. His last known location: Bergen. She looked past the marked graves into the already darkening sky of the city and wondered if Bergen was about to bare its ugly teeth.

Xourtney Hardin & Gunnar Staalesen

Photo: Jerry Holt
For author writer Courtney Holt, the opportunity to connect with Gunnar Staalesen, one of Norway’s most admired crime writers, was a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Courtney Hardin is an English lecturer with a passion for teaching, traveling, and writing. Hardin earned a B.S. in Education from Indiana University Northwest in 1996. She returned to college in 2016 and eventually earned her M.A. in English from Purdue University Northwest in 2019. During her time as a student at Purdue, she studied abroad in both the United Kingdom and Italy. She also presented research on literature, conflict, and crises at an international conference held at the University of London.

See also “A journey into Norwegian Noir”: www.norwegianamerican.com/a-journey-into-norwegian-noir.

This article originally appeared in the April 3, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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